Telling families we can’t help never gets any easier... There are days when I just close the office door and cry

Eight year old Isobel with parents Andrew & Rebecca inside the Treetop facility at the Childrens Hospital
Eight year old Isobel with parents Andrew & Rebecca inside the Treetop facility at the Childrens Hospital

IT’S difficult to imagine anything more traumatic for a family than dealing with a seriously ill child.

But worrying about how you can spend as much time as possible with them during a hospital stay is an extra emotional burden.

The Sick Children’s Trust was founded to deal with that very problem.

The SCT is a national charity which supports the recovery and welfare of seriously and terminally ill children by helping families stay together when their child is in hospital.

It runs seven ‘Homes from Home’ around the UK, including Treetop House at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, supporting around 3,000 families a year and more than 40,000 since it was founded in 1982.

The longest time a single family has stayed at Treetop House is two years. And the need is growing.

Treetop House is a 13-bedroom refuge for families on the top floor of the hospital and latest figures reveal that it was completely full for 208 of 215 nights between April and November last year, with a waiting list on 187 of those nights.

The total number of families on the waiting list for the whole period was 860.

They are a mix of local people desperately needing to be near a critically-ill child and families who live too far away to travel each day.

Among the current residents are the Dews family, from Hoylandswaine, who also feature in today’s front page picture.

Eight-year-old Isobel was born with cerebral palsy but, although restricted to a wheelchair, attended a mainstream school and enjoyed horse riding until she was seriously affected by an infection in December.

After three weeks in hospital in Barnsley, Isobel was moved to the High Dependency Unit at the Children’s Hospital as her condition worsened.

Mum Rebecca and dad Andrew have been with her throughout and Rebecca said: “It’s just been a blessing to be able to be with Isobel, and to bring her sister Olivia to stay and spend time with her at the weekends.

“Isobel’s emotions are all over the place and that makes her condition worse, so I hate to think how upset she would have been if we were having to stay somewhere else.

“It’s just a fantastic place and we can’t say enough good things about it.’’

Nichola Higgins is Assistant House Manager at Treetop House and says telling families there is no room for them to stay is one of the hardest parts of the job.

Nichola, who has worked at Treetop House for seven years, said: “It’s so difficult when someone comes in and pleads with you to help them.

“Some are in tears but often we just can’t do anything to help them because all the rooms are taken.

“That part of the job never gets any easier. If I’m honest, there are days when I just close the office door and cry.

“We always have a waiting list and the new house will be a massive help for us to help more families.

“You get to know the people really well and some of them are going through a terrible time. It can be a very emotional place to work but it’s also very, very rewarding when we can help.’’

Since Treetop House opened in 2001 there has been a gradual growth in specialist services offered at the hospital - one of only four dedicated children’s hospitals in the UK.

A new Accident Assesment Unit is planned as part of the wider development of the hospital, increasing bed capacity from 140 to 200 and bringing with it an even greater demand for parent and family accommodation.

Many wards do not even put families on the waiting list because they know that a room is unlikely to become available before the child leaves hospital.

Two detached houses close to the hospital, currently used as office space, will be joined together to provide 11 family bedrooms, communal kitchen/dining area, lounge, playroom and laundry rooms.